The 2012 St. Louis Rams exceeded expectations and laid a strong foundation under first-year head coach Jeff Fisher. After an abysmal 2-14 record in the 2011 season, everyone in St. Louis knew it was time to clean house and rebuild. That rebuilding effort was largely assisted by the King’s ransom of draft picks St. Louis obtained in the trade with the Washington Redskins that allowed the Redskins to draft Robert Griffin III. However, having the draft picks is one thing, making the correct selections with those picks is another. In that miserable 2011 season, the Rams finished 23rd in the NFL with just 12 interceptions, and ranked 22nd in the league with a -8.5 team pass coverage grade — in a pass-heavy league, that is a recipe for disaster. Those stats combined with a new regime are the main reasons that not one cornerback from the 2011 team is still with the Rams, and only one defensive back remains, safety Darian Stewart. Part of that rebuilding process in the secondary, and one of the young players the Rams will be counting on to develop quickly, is secret superstar Trumaine Johnson.
Boom or Bust
Playing college football at the FCS level (formerly 1-AA) will always raise questions about a potential NFL draft prospect and whether or not they can handle the caliber of talent in the NFL. However, in the case of Trumaine Johnson talent was rarely the question. He dominated while playing cornerback for Montana and after a stellar effort at the scouting combine the Rams felt confident enough in his abilities to make him the 65th overall pick in the 2012 draft. Johnson was a four-year starter at Montana, finished his career with 15 interceptions, and was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan award in 2011, which goes to the most outstanding defensive player in the FCS. His time at Montana wasn’t without controversy though, he was suspended for a game in 2009, and was arrested the morning after a game in 2011 in an alcohol-related incident in which he was tasered. Despite the potential character concerns, and questionable level of competition, St. Louis decided the potential reward of Johnson’s undeniable physical ability outweighed the risks.
Promising Rookie Season
Johnson started his rookie season the same way many rookies do, playing special teams and waiting for an opportunity. The Rams spent big money to bring in free agent cornerback Cortland Finnegan and also drafted Janoris Jenkins 26 spots ahead of Johnson in the 2012 draft to be the two starting corners. After playing only 50 total defensive snaps the first nine weeks of the season Johnson got his opportunity in Week 10. During the first nine weeks of the year St. Louis was sliding Finnegan to slot coverage and bringing in Bradley Fletcher to man the outside in most nickel situations, but Fletcher committed a few big penalties in the Week 8 game against the Patriots and was used sparingly thereafter. Once Johnson was given the opportunity to play in the nickel packages his talents began to show. He finished the season with a +6.9 overall grade, highest among Rams corners, and his +4.1 pass coverage mark was higher than both Finnegan and Jenkins. Johnson allowed a reception every 11.3 snaps that he was the primary man in coverage, ranking him 30th in the entire NFL, ahead of such players as Morris Claiborne (who was drafted 59 spots ahead of Johnson), and teammates Finnegan and Jenkins. The most encouraging part of Johnson’s rookie season was that he got better as his playing time increased and didn’t break down like most rookies. He didn’t post a single negatively graded game after Week 12, and his best game was in Week 16 against the Buccaneers, when he played 81 of the 85 defensive snaps because of an injury to Finnegan. In that game Johnson proved that he is a starting-caliber corner, he was thrown at seven times allowing only two receptions for 28 yards, with an interception. He followed that game with another solid performance in Week 17, playing 57 snaps and again allowing only two receptions, finishing his rookie season on a high.
It didn’t take long for the hope and promise of a successful rookie season to once again turn into concern and unknown for Johnson. Exactly 10 days after incumbent nickel cornerback Bradley Fletcher signed a free agent contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, all but guaranteeing Johnson the position, he got arrested on a misdemeanor DUI charge. These charges were recently dropped as part of a plea agreement and Johnson was apologetic for his actions. The Rams appear to still be committed to Johnson and have to love the promise he showed as a rookie. With more coaching from former defensive back Jeff Fisher, the potential for Johnson is truly boundless. He will enter the 2013 season as the third corner for the Rams, but he will play a significant role in the secondary and has the ability to be a starting corner in the NFL. As always with Johnson, it isn’t his talent that is the question, it is the baggage that comes with it.
Follow John on Twitter: @PFF_Castellane